In The Field Brand Is Everything

by Jon Thompson on September 2, 2009


I am not appalled or incensed, and really struggle to think why you would be.
A boy is in pain. He is being treated by doctors. They are not “fabricating suffering”. This is the reality of MSF, and represents what they do in a completely honest fashion.


To answer your first three questions, the audio is not real to that situation, nor is the house pictured the actual place where the care is being given. The advert has been ‘made’ by the ad agency. The text has also been added and presents a situation – it is not fact.

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Pine Ridge Pow Wow
September 4, 2009 at 12:49 pm

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George Darroch September 2, 2009 at 3:46 pm

Firstly, you know a damn sight more about MSF than I likely ever will. I’ve never been in a war zone, the places I work with are relatively quiet. You’ve been on the ground in South Sudan, where this is ostensibly set. So it’s why this is offensive to you, and the other MSF volunteers as people who have had those experiences that intrigues me.

Of course it has been made in a studio – it is an advertisement, and MSF’s advertising agency is trying something new, something which could not be done with a camera in Darfur.

I’ve watched the clip at least 20 times. And I’m still completely baffled as to why you think MSF has “stoop to such a low level”, and “crossed the line”. Using the suffering of children to create a reaction in viewers? It provokes emotion. Is that what bothers you?

“I’ve seen enough wounded, sick and dying kids that I really don’t need my own organization fabricating suffering just to charm a few bucks out of me.”

Peter Singer has often said that if a little girl was drowning in a pool in front of us, we would jump in to save her. He also notes that we have the power to save lives with minimal inconvenience, but because we feel distant from them, and feel no connection, we leave them to die. This advertisement “brings the war home”. The fact that you cannot escape from one minute of a child crying is quite difficult to deal with. You can’t escape. I was very effected by an ad similar to this a number of years back, and it had a major role in bringing me into the human rights field. The sensation that “I must do something” was almost overwhelming.

All portrayal of suffering is in some way exploitative, because it uses, exploits suffering to create something else. This is no different. It is a portrayal of suffering in the service of reducing it. A search of YouTube reveals that MSF has been in the production of representations of suffering in its advertising for years, using children, and adults, in pain. Other organisations show much more graphic representations than this.

Now, could they have shown that MSF operates in field hospitals, rather than inside burning houses? Of course. Could they have shown that much of what MSF does is much more mundane than this? That would have been preferable. But this is an ad, and it is often difficult to express two concepts at once in an advertisement. Some of the other ads MSF have used express too many concepts to work well as advertising, unfortunately. I don’t think that this conflation is what makes this ad so offensive to you, however.

I should say that have problems with the advertisement, because I think it does not sufficiently empower the viewer to act, in the way that good humanitarian sector marketing does. I agree with you on this point. But this criticism is independent of the critique of fakeness, or the critique of the portrayal of suffering.

Jon Thompson September 3, 2009 at 12:20 pm


I asked my brother to take listen to the audio portion of the video last night. He is a sound engineer in LA and has a very good ear. His response was that the audio would be fairly easy to make. Glad we got it at a discount.

The real problem I have with the video is that is assaults the senses as there is a dissonance between the components.

It is interesting that you say Darfur because it is clear for me that that is where they got the storyline. I would like to know if that was based on a real event or totally fabricated. My guess is the latter.

The building looks like something I saw in Iraq yet the graffiti of the bomber, which I assume is an Antonov, and tukuls support the argument that it is Sudan. It is possible that they went to the trouble of photoshopping the graffiti onto the side of the building.

The accent of the child does not sound familiar but I don’t think it is Middle Eastern and perhaps the “mama mama” supports my hunch. Sadly, I think they chose a child in Africa.

The rest was stock audio that they threw in. Apparently, there are ‘war audio toolboxes’ where you can select the caliber of the weapon, the number of shots fired, etc and the database will kick out a sound file to your liking. It would be nice if someone from the ad agency would comment on the type of weapon they used in the recording as it does not sound like and AK-47 although the ambient sound makes it hard to distinguish what type of weapon it is. The fact that the weapon does not sound native to the region adds another element to the overall dissonance.

When you spend time in environments where there is open combat you become sensitized to ‘right and wrong’ sounds. You need to be able to discern the various sounds in order to make proper judgments regarding your safety. The same is true with visual cues. You get into a rhythm of identifying and labeling threats and if anything throws that rhythm off you want to know why. The problem with the video is that it is so inaccurate, and there are so many incongruities, that it seems to short circuit ones senses. The result is that one simply rejects the entire video outright.

At first you want to believe it is real because it is branded as MSF but then you realize that even your brand has been compromised. Add to that the fact that you are watching a video that actually offends the senses and you get why I am so disappointed. Well, at least that is part of the reason.

If they had just filmed a real event I probably would not have had a problem with it, beyond the obvious suffering, and would have appreciated their attempt at realism. Sadly, the exact opposite occurred.



George Darroch September 3, 2009 at 5:55 pm

Firstly, the assumption that this is Darfur is based on the now famous images drawn by children (Google + children drawings Darfur), that form a significant component of the visual language used to describe the Darfur conflict. They were republished very widely a few years ago, and they are deliberately used by the advertisers to link children to conflict.

Now, there are people who have complained that it shows suffering, and that it exploits it. I think these people are being too ‘sensitive’ and creating their own moral hurdles for MSF to jump through. I think their complaint is because they would rather not look at or hear suffering. But at least I can understand why they have this issue with the ad.

I know you have a problem with the audio being composed in a studio. This creates “dissonance” for you. Because you’ve been there, and know what things ‘should sound like’.

But I still have no idea why this is a problem.

“When you spend time in environments where there is open combat you become sensitized to ‘right and wrong’ sounds… The result is that one simply rejects the entire video outright. ”

Their target audience is movie-goers in the UK, not MSF fieldworkers back from Southern Sudan. And for these people, based on my own reactions, I assume this audio is largely effective. It portrays in what seems a fairly realistic way a fictionalised but at least somewhat representative image.

Jon Thompson September 3, 2009 at 9:52 pm


You are absolutely right. This video works for people who have not had the ability to work in the field and assist people in need. For those of us who have worked in the field this piece is absolute rubbish. I am glad I fall into the latter group and not the former.

I believe this video is also representative of the more activist side of MSF whose motives I do not personally agree with. I have found that in the field their actions are often counterproductive and impair our ability to do our job. Sadly, it seems like this may once again be the case.

I’ll just add that as a member of MSF I do not support or condone this type of behaviour.



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